Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A few fall warblers

The extreme upper end of Alum Creek Reservoir, in Delaware County, Ohio. The beginnings of fall tinge the foliage with bits of color. This spot will look autumnally fantastic in a few weeks.

I was here last Saturday at the crack of dawn to photograph plants. There are some interesting meadow-like openings atop high shale bluffs along the east side of the reservoir. They support the striking combination of Showy Goldenrod, Solidago speciosa var. speciosa, and Smooth Aster, Symphyotrichum laeve. I use the nominate trinomial for the former, as this goldenrod is carved into several distinct varieties. One of these, var. rigidiuscula, also occurs in Ohio. It is very rare and listed as state-endangered. The variety I saw on this day is not much more common and is listed as state-threatened.

A Bay-breasted Warbler peeks from oak foliage. About the time that I was through photographing plants, the sun was cresting the distant tree line and casting solar energy onto the nearby treetops. And in came the warblers.

A mixed feeding flock that included at least these species: Tennessee, Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Cape May, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Black-and-white warblers. I may have missed one or two, as I became fixated on trying to capture imagery of the small active animals. In any case, dozens of birds comprised the flock.

A Tennessee Warbler pauses briefly to survey its surroundings. Note its very fine, sharply tipped bill.

Fall warblers are subtle, and don't exactly draw one's eye. The still dense foliage masks them, and in many species the plumage is somewhat more muted than in spring. No males are singing, but the birds regularly emit soft chip notes that alerts one to their presence.

A Magnolia Warbler flits through the shadows within an Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginianus. A few small specimens of this conifer were nearby, and I was surprised at the number of warblers foraging among the needles.

The Black-throated Green Warblers were especially smitten with the cedars. Which makes sense, as they are conifer-breeders over most of their range.

A Black-throated Green Warbler hover-gleans cedar foliage. It tugged out what looked like a Juniper Geometer caterpillar, Patalene olyzonaria. This is very common warbler feeding strategy.

Seemingly as quick as the flurry began, it was over. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The onset of fall color


The first blushes of fall color paint trees along the shoreline of Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware County, Ohio this morning. My hunch is this will be a doozy of a fall for brilliant foliage. Autumn is one of the best seasons in the Upper Midwest, in no small part due to the riot of color caused by leaf change. I look forward to the increased vividness to come, and will hope to capture more of it with my camera.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

American Pipit

A portion of the massive mudflats at the upper end of Hoover Reservoir in Delaware County, Ohio. Mudflats of varying size form here every autumn, and this can be a great place for seeking shorebirds. I made a trip to Hoover on September 15, and as always the birding was good and varied. The most notable shorebird was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, although these fascinating long-haul migrants are annual here and to be expected.

As a footnote, the vegetation of these seasonally exposed mudflats is fascinating. Shorebirds such as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper probably play a role in the distribution of some of these plant species, when looking at plant distributions on a long time scale. CLICK HERE to read a piece I wrote about that phenomenon quite some time ago (and probably should write another).

An American Pipit briefly mounts a rock, the better to cast an eye about its wide-open surroundings.

I was quite pleased to hear the calls of pipits as I made my way out the flats. This bird is strictly a transient with us, and it's possible that the animal in the photo came from from the high Canadian arctic or even Alaska. In North America, they breed at northerly latitudes across Canada, throughout much of Alaska, and at high elevations in the western mountains. American Pipits - there are seven subspecies - also occur across much of Eurasia.

This pipit is a diurnal migrant, and knowing their flight calls will greatly aid in their detection. Many times they will only be heard as flocks pass by high overhead. At the peak of their migrations, in favorable locales such as along the south shore of Lake Erie, I have heard several hundred pass over in a few hour time span. Fortunately for me on this fine day, a small flock of four birds did settle onto the flats to forage.

There's no sneaking up on an American Pipit, as they favor flat, wide-open landscapes. But they are rather tame, and I was able to sneak into a good spot and let the birds wander my way. Eventually I was able to get the above shot and some other decent ones - the first acceptable American Pipit shots that I have managed to obtain.

PHOTO NOTE: It's often best to try and get as close to the level of your subject as possible. In the case of a pipit, that means you'll have to be on the ground or as close to it as possible. I was shooting my big telephoto on a tripod, but had the legs splayed out so that the camera rig was only a foot or so above ground level. Such an angle puts the photographer on the same terms as the bird, and leads to a more pleasing image.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wayward brown booby a delight for Ohio birders

A juvenile brown booby on its favorite perch along Nimisila Reservoir near Akron/Jim McCormac

Wayward brown booby a delight for Ohio birders

Columbus Dispatch
September 20, 2020
Jim McCormac

Big bird news erupted Aug. 25 when word of a brown booby appeared on various birding forums.

Henry Trimpe, along with longtime birders Dwight and Ann Chasar, discovered the bird late that day at Nimisila Reservoir near Akron.

Brown boobies normally are strictly ocean-going birds. They breed on islands in tropical seas nearly worldwide. Seeing one inland on fresh water, especially as far north as Ohio, is unusual indeed.

Trimpe’s find quickly mobilized the binocular-toting crowd, and birders descended on the site the next morning. And there was the booby, in the very tree that it was seen in the previous evening.
This dead shoreline tree turned out to be the booby’s favored roost site, and, when it wasn’t fishing over the lake, it returned to perch on one the tree’s limbs. This habit made it simple to find and, over the next few days, hundreds of birders converged on the site.

Boobies are quite tame, and seemingly fearless of people. Thus, the fawning masses had no effect on it, although the optical-laden crowds drew the attention of other people.

Non-birder to birder: “What are you all looking at?”

Birder: “Brown booby.”

Hilarity ensues.

The funny name derives from the Spanish bobo, meaning dunce. Consulting Gary Meiter’s informative book, “Bird is the Word,” reveals this: “Sailors apparently named the birds because they were so tame and easily caught. Then the ship’s cook could prepare a big pot of booby stew.” Boobies are not dumb; rather they are extraordinarily tame, as many isolated island-dwelling animals tend to be.

I could not get to Nimisila Reservoir until Aug. 29, but I need not have worried — the bird was still present and seemingly at home in its unnatural freshwater haunts.

It wasn’t long before I was gazing upon it. The spectacular bird was up in the tree on its favorite branch, watching the world go by. As the best place for unobstructed views and photos was out in the lake, I waded in with tripod and camera.

Brown boobies are especially impressive: The 2½-pound bird is 1½ feet long, with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet.

Juveniles, like this bird, are brown throughout, though adults have bright-white bellies. Their large yellowish feet are webbed and ducklike, and the stout stiletto of a bill is designed for seizing fish.

I had hardly settled into my watery lookout when a young peregrine falcon shot in and took a swipe at the booby. The aggressive raptor then chased the seabird around the lake, occasionally forcing it to the water. I don’t think it was an effort to kill the booby; the falcon likely was exerting dominance over a completely foreign large bird, a notion reinforced when the falcon appropriated the booby’s favored perch.

After the falcon left, the booby commenced fishing, making plunge dives to grab small prey. These freshwater fish probably were easier to take than a favored oceanic food, flying fish.

Why would a brown booby be on a freshwater lake in northeast Ohio, 1,100 miles north of its normal saltwater purlieu? Hurricane Laura. This storm formed off the coast of Africa a few days before this booby appeared, and it swept across the Atlantic. It undoubtedly blew the young, inexperienced bird far to the north, giving Ohio its first record of an unexpected species.

Unfortunately, the booby never made it back to southern oceans. Sometime during the night of Sept. 4 or the next day’s early hours, a great horned owl apparently picked it off. The booby’s wings were found below the tree, and dismemberment is a calling card of these powerful owls.

During its stay, though, this booby enriched many lives and brought a taste of tropical oceans to Ohio.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Curve-lined Owlet: A most extraordinary caterpillar!


A typical Ohio woodland, especially in southern Ohio's Adams County, where I made this shot. The leaves in the foreground belong to Common Greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia. Many hikers/woods-people know this plant because of its heavily thorned stems. Walking through a dense greenbrier patch is not fun.

But greenbriers - there are about a half-dozen Smilax species in Ohio - are ecologically important and play host to some very cool critters. One of them, the extremely bizarre Curve-lined Owlet Moth caterpillar, has been on my hit list for years. I have searched scads of greenbrier, which sometimes seems like the proverbial needle in a haystack quest, to no avail. Until September 8. The quest caterpillar is actually in the greenbrier in the above shot, but might be a bit tough to spot. You'll certainly see it well in the following images, though.

Chris Zacharias knew that I and a few others were hot on the trail of this owlet cat, and soon after he stumbled into one at the location above back on September 7 (his first, I believe) he sent John Howard and I messages with details. And so launched my first ever major caterpillar chase, as it was a two hour drive to reach the site. But the following day I headed out at dawn, and met John and Cheryl Carpenter at the site. Our hopes were high. If some annoying titmouse or other caterpillar-killing bag of feathers hadn't taken out the owlet, we were pretty confident about finding our Holy Grail.

The Curve-lined Owlet caterpillar in silhouette. Even from this, we get a sense of the strangeness of this tubular oddity.

Chris, detail-oriented as he is - not to mention sharp-eyed! - had sent explicit directions to the cat, which was feasting on a greenbrier plant about a half-mile down a woodland path. We headed that way, but were slowed by numerous greenbriers dotting the forest floor. Figuring that the moth that laid the golden egg that produced Zacharias's owlet caterpillar probably laid scores of other eggs in the area, we carefully inspected plants on the way.

The three of us were gathered around a small patch of greenbrier, when suddenly John uttered magic words: "Here's one!" And just like that, the spell was broken. Years of fruitless quests and thorny greenbrier searches fell by the wayside, and we drank in the charm of what may be our (in Ohio, at least) most bizarre caterpillar.

The Curve-lined Owlet caterpillar hangs from a stem of Common Greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia. Greenbrier leaves are often dappled with brownish patches of necrotic tissue, and leaf margins often turn brown and crisp. Furthermore, plants are beset with filamentous tendrils. The caterpillar seems to mimic all these things, and they can be incredibly hard to spot in the thickets. I shudder to think how many I've been in close proximity to, but missed.

A dead greenbrier leaf snagged on a stem. You can see how well the caterpillar mimics the look of dead plant material.

PHOTO NOTE: To get the uniformly brown bokeh (background) in some of these photos, we just held a piece of cardboard a foot or so behind the subject. I always carry such things - including sheets of other colors - to help separate my subject from a cluttered background when needed. I believe the greenish background in the previous shot was achieved by having John get behind the caterpillar so we could use his shirt for the bokeh.

After a suitable admiration session of the first caterpillar, we worked on down the trail and located Chris Zachariah's animal. Not one, but two Curve-lined Owlet cats in short order! This owlet was on a different greenbrier species, Bristly Greenbrier, Smilax hispida.

Their appearance is truly remarkable - look at those pseudo-tendrils! - but equally astonishing is the caterpillar's behavior. If disturbed, or even jostled by a puff of wind, the caterpillar will begin to slowly twist and turn, just as a hanging dead leaf will. John has great video of this leaf-mimicking behavior. I think the larva is aided in its ability to slowly twist and pivot from a single point by the fact that it has only two sets of medial prolegs - most non-inchworm caterpillars have four middle sets of legs.

Photo by John Howard and used with permission

If all goes well for the strange caterpillar, this is what it will become. The Curve-lined Owlet moth is also a very interesting insect. The common name derives from that prominent whitish line across the wings. I have never seen the moth, and appreciate John allowing me the use of his image. I believe he has seen only one or two of the moths. I too hope to some day clap eyes on one.

The seeming scarcity of this species is a bit of a mystery. Its host plants are common, and often locally abundant. Obviously the caterpillars, in spite of being of a decently large size, are tough to spot. But I and others I know have spent many hours looking for them and you'd think if they were fairly common we'd occasionally encounter cats. It's not like we're brand new to the caterpillar-hunting rodeo. Also, the moths don't seem to turn up very often at moth sheets. Perhaps they just are not strongly attracted to light, though. Anyway, some mystery surrounds this extraordinary animal.

Major thanks to Chris Zacharias for tipping us to his discovery. The caterpillar was everything we hoped for and more. Besides and as always, this foray got us deep into some interesting habitat, and that night we hunted more caterpillars and set up moth lights. Scores of other interesting finds were made and in all it was a highly productive long day of exploration and photography.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Big backyard buck!


I glanced into the backyard "refuge" a few days ago only to see this stud. He was eating my beauty-berry plants. He may be the father of the two fawns that frequent my yard, and he may be looking to hook up with the doe again. Fine by me, as is his consumption of my backyard flora. He vaulted that fence as effortlessly as we'd step over a curb. I wrote about the fawns - at least one of them, a second appeared later - RIGHT HERE, and HERE.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Concretions, galore

Hundreds of concretions litter the stream bed of Deer Creek in Pickaway County, Ohio. These concretions are composed of siderite, a type of iron carbonate, and many are massive. Over the eons, they have eroded from the much softer Devonian Shale. Shale cliffs line the western bank of the stream. The overall effect is quite dramatic and more than a touch surreal. It's like an army of rock blobs marching down the stream. I hope to get back here near the peak of fall color for more photography. Yesterday morning.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Eastern Racer

An excellent find on last Tuesday's foray deep into Adams County (Ohio) was this fine Eastern Racer, Coluber constrictor. The animal was basking on sun-soaked leaf litter near the trail, and held tight hoping we'd pass without noticing. The last person in the party, John Howard, did, fortunately. These are exciting snakes. Racers exude a raw charisma, an incredible sense of awareness, and feral charm. They're tough, and other snakes - even venomous species - constitute part of their diet. The "racer" name is warranted. When this one had enough of our act, it shot away like a snapped bullwhip and was into a brush pile 20 feet away in seconds.

This trip was incredibly productive. We were after a true Holy Grail species, and found it. Along the way, many other interesting organisms such as this snake were found. I'll post about the prized find of our foray later. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Nature: Despite "ick" factor, spiders play vital role as predator

A pirate spider lurks under a leaf/Jim McCormac

Nature: Despite "ick" factor, spiders play vital role as predator

September 6, 2020

Jim McCormac

Like it or not, we’re entering prime spider season. And there’s a good chance YOU don’t like it. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears. That’s a shame. Spiders are fascinating in behavior and appearance, and critical components of ecological webs.

There are approximately 650 spider species known from Ohio, and they come in many shapes and sizes. Many species overwinter in the egg stage, and the tiny spiderlings hatch in spring. By autumn, they have grown to an appreciable size and we notice many of the larger spiders.

Spiders represent an enormous group of apex predators, and are a vital part of maintaining ecological balance. As one of the most abundant group of hunters in most of our habitats, they collectively harvest an enormous volume of prey.

Silken webs of all sorts are the most conspicuous evidence of spiders plying their trade. Some webs are small and inconspicuous; others are large and showy. The raison d’ etre for these webs is universal: snare unsuspecting prey.

I was recently part of a group that converged at the ridgetop home of artist and author Julie Zickefoose in rural Washington County. Our party included Kelly Ball, Laura Hughes, Jessica Vaughan Melfi, Shila Wilson, and Julie and I.

A big part of the foray involved a nocturnal outing. We were mostly stalking moths and caterpillars, but found numerous interesting spiders. Like eight-legged vampires, many spiders emerge under the cloak of darkness.

As the night wore on, members of our party gradually slipped away, sanely returning to base camp and soft beds. Eventually it was just Laura and I and our flashlights exploring the inky woodlands. We finally ran out of steam at 3 am, but as is often the case, the post-midnight hours were productive.

At one point Laura summoned me to look at a spider lurking under a leaf. She had found a pirate spider, Mimetus puritanus!

There were good reasons to exalt over this find. One, pirate spiders don’t seem to be very common, or at least I have seldom seen them. Two, pirate spiders are arachnoid Rambos.

Almost all of our spider species are venomous, and other small animals mostly do well to avoid them. A pounce and a quick bite and they’re paralyzed toast. Even spiders must watch their steps when around other spider species.

The pirate spider isn’t intimidated by its venomous kin. Indeed, this small group – there are 8 species in Ohio and 156 species worldwide – specialize on hunting other spiders.

Unlike many other spiders, pirate spiders do not construct webs. Some species lie in wait, and when another spider happens by they pounce on it, kill it and eat it.

More interesting from a tactical perspective are the web-raiding pirate spiders. A hunting spider will sidle up to a web and gently twang a strand like a homicidal banjo player. This creates vibration throughout the web, and the rightful occupant will rush from its hiding spot and into the web to investigate.

The pirate spider then blitzkriegs the unsuspecting victim, and kills it.

Such dramas play out in abundance under cover of darkness. Horrifying as they may seem when gauged by human sensibilities, this is just the reality of Nature. And Nature is usually not very Disneyesque.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.


Friday, September 4, 2020

The Booby is dead, long live the Booby!


Photo by Jeff Harvey, posted with permission

We - the birders of Ohio - were rocked by some unfortunate news this morning. I received an email around 8:30 am from Bob Lane, along with some photos taken moments before by Jeff Harvey. Jeff had gone to see the Brown Booby once more - the subject of my prior post, RIGHT HERE - and soon found this wing floating under the booby's favorite perch tree.

Alas, there's no mistaking that wing. Some predator had taken out what had become perhaps the most famous vagrant bird in the Midwest.

Photo by Jeff Harvey, posted with permission

One of the juvenile Brown Booby's wings, dismembered. Who would have done this dastardly deed?

An obvious suspect, and some fingers have pointed in this direction, would be the juvenile Peregrine Falcon that I discussed in my previous post about this booby. However, I do not think the falcon is guilty. It is true that peregrines are primarily bird hunters. But they generally take much smaller prey than this booby, although the powerful falcons can kill ducks and smaller geese. But a Brown Booby weighs nearly a pound more than a peregrine, is nearly twice the length, and its wingspan is almost a foot and half longer. It'd be a tall order for a falcon to take out a booby and it probably wouldn't be worth the effort, especially in an area where more manageable prey abounds. Plus, I don't think a falcon would neatly sever the wings.

Also, the last report of the booby from yesterday came from around sunset or even a bit after, and the booby was settled into its favorite perch tree. While Peregrine Falcons are known to occasionally hunt at night, such behavior is not typical and the species is normally a diurnal hunter. While the booby kill could have been made around dawn this morning, before Jeff or other birders arrived, it seems likely that something got it last night.

I would guess Great Horned Owl. These powerful owls are at the top of the avian food chain in these parts, and are known for dismembering body parts of larger victims. Especially the head. I don't know if anyone has found or will find the rest of the booby carcass, but if it turns up it'll be interesting to see if it's headless or at least partly so. Great Horned Owls are known to take birds up to the size of mergansers, Short-eared Owl, and even - at least once - an Osprey. A booby roosting more or less in the open in a dead tree would seem to be a sitting duck for a hungry owl.

Scores of people came to see the celebrity booby during its ten days at Nimisila Reservoir. There's no telling if the wayward youngster would have made its way back to southern oceans, eventually. But that's a moot point now. Fortunately, in the bigger picture, Brown Booby is probably the most numerous of the world's half-dozen booby species, with a population likely numbering several hundred thousand. So, while many of us will lament the loss of the Ohio bird, the species will carry on.